Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Smuggler's Tunnel

Role of a protein called Rab11a in the spread of flu virus between cells

22 November 2021

Smuggler's Tunnel

Imagine a wanted criminal sneaking through a secret tunnel to avoid risking detection above ground. That’s what some forms of the flu virus do, spreading directly between cells via connecting tunnels rather than (or in addition to) their usual dissemination tactic of forming particles on the cell surface and spraying out in search of new targets. This direct transport is not well understood, but a new study has identified a smuggler enabling the movement: a protein called Rab11a, already known to help virus genetic material reach the cell surface to be packaged for ejection. The researchers saw that infected cells (left) lacking Rab11a connected to uninfected cells and Rab11a (green) migrated across to enable the movement of virus material (red), showing bidirectional shuffling. The virus can evade the body’s defences using this route of expansion, so understanding how to block the way could help keep the virus at bay.

Written by Anthony Lewis

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